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Susan Fox Rogers: Sycamore Canyon

When the escape of bird watching along the Mexican border offers a glimpse of harsher realities.

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Image taken by Flickr user Kaibab National Forest

By Susan Fox Rogers

The guide to birding around Tucson writes that Sycamore Canyon “has been called the most interesting and also the most difficult birding area in Arizona…It is rugged, remote and can be a route for smuggling people and illegal drugs…There is no trail, only the streambed; the route is strenuous.”

I wanted to go.

“Sounds good,” Deb said over the phone. “Bring water. I’ll pick you up at eight.”

It was my second day in Arizona. I had flown from New York to Tucson to visit friends from my graduate school days at the University of Arizona, to soak in the warmth of the desert. And to bird. How perfect that a place where I had friends was also a major birding destination.

In the past two years, I had become bird-dazed. Explaining one’s passions is never easy, especially those that come suddenly and in mid-age. To help me articulate how essential the birds feel, I turn to Grandpapa Burroughs. In the 19th century, John Burroughs’ popular books brought the sounds of nature to the average reader. He can be a bit nature pious, but at his best, he devours the Catskill Mountains, hiking, observing, delighting with a restless—at times moody—energy.

I had found that birds were the perfect antidote to gloomy thoughts about the passage of time, and to the low-level but constant fury about how messed up the world is.

For Burroughs, learning about nature, about birds, is not just about the facts, but adds to the “resources of our lives…To add to the resources of one’s life—think how much that means!” Indeed. For Burroughs knowing nature involves feeling “more at home in the world”; guards against “ennui and stagnation”; makes “every walk in the fields or woods an excursion into a land of unexhausted treasures.” Nature does nothing less than keep us “fresh and sane and young, and make us immune to the strife and fever of the world.” Yes, I added those italics. I know that some might be skeptical that learning birds could do so much, but I had found that birds were the perfect antidote to gloomy thoughts about the passage of time, and to the low-level but constant fury about how messed up the world is. They did keep me sane.

When I first met Deb, over ten years ago, she couldn’t hide the bruises and scratches on her strong arms and skinny legs. “Bushwacking into a rock climb,” she explained with a grin. I too am a climber, so I envied those climbing battle wounds and knew then that we would be friends. Conveniently, in the past two years, she had also picked up a pair of binoculars and had gone about learning the birds with her usual intensity.

Under an overcast sky, Deb and I headed south on Route 19 toward Sycamore Canyon. Soon, we were jouncing down winding dirt roads. The sky hovered patchy gray above us, with not even a hint of blue. The moody sky added to the fantastic, empty landscape that stretched in all directions, no towns, not even a telephone pole or electric line in sight. Red rocks, red soil, little clumps of trees huddling near faint patches of water. This was land to get lost in. Land run by rattle snakes and lizards. When I begin to feel cramped in my life on the east coast, it is just such a view that I call to mind. It calms me to remember we have not (yet) thumbed every last piece of our planet.

The parking lot at the trailhead was a flat dirt patch under a sycamore tree. We had the place to ourselves, which both pleased and spooked me, like we were visiting a ghost town.

Knapsacks with food and water, hats in place, binoculars at the ready. We wore sturdy hiking boots, and stroked on sunscreen, in case the sun chose to visit. We launched into the canyon, which runs south, six miles to the Mexican border. Little water flowed in the stream bed, but near where water might run, plants grew vivid green, lush. Sycamore trees spread, gallantly shading the dusty riverbed. I scanned for movement, a flick of tail, the brush of a wing.

Bird migratory paths disregard the geopolitical boundaries that lace the globe. So the birds don’t care about the wall constructed along long stretches of the Mexico-United States border.

Deb was nimble, pouncing on birds, first a Spotted Towhee, with its black head and red eye, that makes it look like it is recovering from a hangover. A sturdy bird, it sports a spotted black cape, and red flanks. Its range lies in the West, a cousin to the Eastern Towhee I knew well. Then Deb pointed to a Ruby-crowned Kinglet fluttering in a bush. The nervous-seeming, tiny bird raised its red crest, thrummed one of its cascading songs. I think of the Kinglet as a northern bird, one I often saw when snow was just leaving the ground, so it was strange to greet it here in the desert. But it’s a bird that winters in all of the southern states.

Bird migratory paths disregard the geopolitical boundaries that lace the globe. So the birds don’t care about the wall constructed along long stretches of the Mexico-United States border. But the wall—which some insist on calling a fence— does deter or even stop other animals, like rare jaguars or gray wolves, penned in or out, unable to find a mate or to reach food or water. And sometimes it stops humans also in search of a better life.

At home, I spend a lot of time looking at range maps, because understanding where a bird lives, breeds, migrates is one of the more helpful ways to identification. And it wasn’t hard, there in that canyon, to make the connection: we were north of the border, that almost arbitrary line, so that meant we were the white-skinned short-wearing American. This ID meant we were free to fly the length of this canyon. Our cousins from the south were not.

We walked single file along the riverbed, the crunch of feet on gravel the only sound. Soon we were clambering over boulders, slithering down steep gullies. And in this boulder-strewn canyon, the birds seemed to evaporate. Still, I continued my birding vigilance, scanning above and below for movement. And that is when I saw the water bottles and a blanket tucked behind a boulder. At first I thought: garbage. Then I realized what story these bottles told and I felt something inside of me twist.

Yes, birding made me “immune to the strife and fever of the world.” But then birds lured me to places where I couldn’t ignore the world.

A little further along, a can of infant formula lodged in a crevice in the short canyon wall. I know about as much as your average New York Times reader about the border; seeing those water bottles and the formula transformed those stock images of frightened families crammed into the back of box trucks into real lives. In that moment, birding seemed both spectacularly frivolous and nerve-wrackingly essential.

Yes, birding made me “immune to the strife and fever of the world.” But then birds lured me to places where I couldn’t ignore the world. Maybe birding was about forgetting the world, then returning to see as vividly as if magnified by my Zeiss binoculars. But what to do with what I saw? Perhaps exactly what I did when I saw a bird: add these images to the resources of my life.

Red rock pinnacles rose from the earth, and the clouds started to drift off, leaving patches of blue sky. We walked another mile, until we reached a small pool of water cradled by sculpted, red rocks. We hopped around the rocks, carefree but pensive.

We settled down to picnic on cheese and crackers, and debated pushing on down the canyon. Maybe there would be good birds further south. But it had been so quiet, that seemed unlikely. I was curious to see more, of the canyon, maybe even walk to the border. What was there? A sign? The fence? Did it extend out here into this empty, haunted land? But if I was honest, I was also nervous.

“Why walk if you can’t see birds?” Deb asked with a smile. I was relieved the birds decided it for us. We soon packed up and retraced our steps. As we neared the parking area and our car, a bird fluttered in the bushes. Binoculars to eyes, Deb whispered, “gray chest.”

“No markings,” I confirmed. “Brown cap.” The bird was not familiar to me.

“Look at the white eye ring.”

It was fun piecing together what we were seeing.

As we focused on the bird, I sensed movement on the bluff above us, but I didn’t want to look up, to lose the bird. I caught a few more quick looks at the rufous cap, the stocky body.

“Rufous-crowned,” Deb reported with confidence.

I grinned. This solitary, uncommon bird was a new to me and one I would only see in this border region. I stayed with the sparrow until it disappeared down the canyon.

I pulled down my bins and looked up at the plateau that ran just above the riverbed. What I had sensed moving was a man, now standing still. Adrenalin surged through my body.

It took in the shape and size of the man, that he wore a dark uniform, had a large black automatic weapon strapped to his shoulder. Easy ID: a border patrol agent. He smiled and nodded.

“We’re birding,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “I didn’t want to bother you.”

And I wondered what the world would be like if he said that to everyone he met in this canyon.

Susan Fox Rogers is the author of My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir and the editor of twelve book anthologies including Antarctica: Life on the Ice and Solo: On her own Adventure. “Sycamore Canyon” is part of a book in progress on birds, birding, life and love. She lives in the Hudson Valley where she teaches the creative essay at Bard College.

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